dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y




dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y/a Holiday from History, 2003

Reality Mistaken for a Commercial Break
An interview with Johan Grimonprez
by Florence Montagnon



Florence Montagnon: Your film dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y shows the history of skyjacking up to the year 1997 and your magazine Inflight, produced in 2000, is a how-to manual in piracy. How did you react when reality and fiction merged during the events of September 11th in New York?


Johan Grimonprez: In retrospect, dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y now seems like a premonition of the events that took place at the World Trade Center on September 11th in New York. These events are obviously symptomatic of a global structure, one which the United States' lack of political awareness is partly to blame for. September 11th is a bit like a backlash of their own violence exported elsewhere.1 Anis Shivani, in an article entitled "Is America Becoming Fascist?", analyses violent acts people allow themselves to commit. The centrality of the question of "what is a fascist state?" allows to draw pertinent parallels between the rise of Hitlerite fascism in 1933 Germany and the government of George W. Bush, one that manipulated an electoral outcome and seized the opportunity presented by an emergency situation to implement laws that curtailed democratic rights (the Patriot Act, etc.).2 Hitler's rise to power was facilitated by the burning of the Reichstag, just as the attack on the World Trade Center enabled Bush to gear his administration towards waging war and setting in motion a propaganda machine demonizing foreigners (the only difference being that Jews are today replaced by Arabs). Intellectuals were afraid to broach this for fear of being labelled as traitors. One need only point to the German Minister of Justice Herta Däubler-Gmelin, who was dismissed for having dared to affirm that comparison.


F.M.: In your work, violence seems to be the only means there is for gaining a purchase on reality. Do you think that art has to be violent? Does its impact depend on its degree of violence?


J.G.: The question is rather secondary for me. The fundamental question is what is going on in the real world. Art is cut off from it, not only from the perspective of reactions and spaces of reflection, but also from the point of view of interventions. Art is sanitized of real violence. The explosion of the World Trade Center has to be repositioned within its global context. There is no comparison to be made between 9/11 and other geo-political crimes, at least in America's eyes. Violence must always be contextualized (historically, politically, geographically, socially...).

Whether art has to be violent or not to be effective is secondary with respect to what is going on in daily life. What is of importance is to analyse our tools of communication, language and terminology concerning violence. Western media reports in particular ways on what is happening in the Middle East. When the Israeli Army attacks Palestinians as part of what it describes as a military operation, Palestinian resistance is spun as terrorism. The enemy becomes criminal, even in a case of legitimate defence. Israel's true motive behind the Palestinian territories occupation isn't to prevent terrorist attacks as much as it is to sidetrack any peace agreement, and in so doing set the vocabulary by branding Palestinians as terrorists.


F.M.: You emphasize the interconnections between different elements and the contrasting points of view they may give rise to (the history of airplane hijackings from a media perspective and the history of the media from the point of view of airplane hijacking, or the use of the media by terrorists and inversely the use of terrorist acts by the media). For you, how does détournement [diversion, displacement]3 operate in art-making? Is it pertinent and effective?


J.G.: The contemporary articulations of the strategy of détournement, introduced in the 1960s by the Situationists, are to be found in the web-based work of RTMark (www.rtmark.com), or in the actions of Noël Godin of the Gloupgloups (www.gloupgloup.com), who toss cream pies at the faces of today's "key figures", such as Bill Gates, who was pied in Brussels on 2nd of February 1998. Diverting the media is one thing, but what interests me is provocation, creating short-circuits in order to critique a situation. To hold up a mirror to events is not enough. Finding openings and integrating them in my work allows me to forge from them a new kind of poetry. Take, for instance, zapping. You can only zap within an existing programme and the availability of channels. You can go further and find something beyond that.


F.M.: Why is the question of the media everywhere in your work? What does it mean?


J.G.: Be careful! Nowadays it's possible for you to see your arse on television five minutes after going to the bathroom! Profound changes. Another example, missiles are no longer equipped with homing capabilities but cameras. We are all amazed by the "clean" imagery but disavow the dead. The media are everywhere in contemporary society. Impossible to deny their existence. It's even oppressive. So I can't do otherwise than to take them into account.

In the website zapomatik.com, I undertook historical research into the connections between zapping and commercial breaks in order to understand what the media are today. The definition of zapping stems from video-recording devices and their option of fast-forwarding through commercial breaks.

During the eighties, a great change occurred in television. People started to record on video, cable was introduced, and CNN and MTV first aired. Zapping away from the commercial was labelled an epidemic by the television industry, to the point where the advertising world established new strategies in order to reassert power over the consumer television audience. 'Zap-proof' commercials were sought to ensure that TV viewers remained seated during advertising breaks. The length of commercials was reduced from 30 to 15 seconds in order to shorten the interruption between programmes.

With the birth of MTV and CNN we witnessed the fusion of two worlds: alien abductees and presidents alike were being interviewed concurrently on CNN's Larry King Live—a reality borrowed from Hollywood, just like emotions after the events of September 11th. As if we were dealing with Independence Day live, the Hollywood "disaster" style becoming reality.4 In October 2002, United States Army secret service agents met with Hollywood directors and screenwriters at the Institute of Creative Technology at the University of California in order to imagine terrorist scenarios. Apparently, more people believe in aliens than in presidents. An official investigation revealed that the amount of people believing in aliens outnumbers the combined number who voted in Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton to the White House.5

Following the fall of communism in the early 1990s, the western imagination was redefined. Capitalism is confronted with its own hegemony by continuing its tautology. The reappearance of the space alien in the early nineties makes sense at a time of global crisis when the capitalist unconscious finds itself facing a void. It's no longer James Bond against the USSR, but Mickey Mouse versus ET. Filled with aliens, this Hollywoodian void, is redefined in disturbing ways (X-Files...). In the United States, the international context is hardly ever questioned. Everybody focuses on the American tragedy. Ken Loach's film on September 11th shows that on the same date in Chile, Allende's palace was also bombarded. This signalled the start of 1973 Chilean coup, one which claimed the lives of 30,000 people.6


F.M.: In what way do you treat the issue of context? Can art be "effective" while remaining in venues reserved for art, or do you think it has to enter into new spaces?


J.G.: I question the limits of art, as I question my own. While I use the language of art (like simple tools for investigating our so-called consensus reality), I'm more interested in its new potential spaces. What is a documentary, a work of fiction? In political life, there are many narratives. As Hannah Arendt once pointed out, "a certain aestheticization of political life" is dangerous. For me, it is as important that one of my films be shown on cultural channels, in art institutions, as on the net. During the war in Afghanistan, CNN was used as a strategic tool of war to spread disinformation (at a time when zapping was reduced to choosing CNN, broadcast on all the global channels). On the other hand, during the events of Tiananmen Square, the Chinese compared their television channel with CNN in order to criticize their government. The point of view of reception is important. The East German writer Heiner Müller considered West German commercials as having been the most subversive images on television in East Berlin. I created a video-library that is premised on the belief that the viewer never has a passive role. The displacement of a situation can sometimes help to better understand it because it's disguised and displacing it automatically refers us back to reality. Then you have to be able to search beyond.


Thus, in the magazine Inflight, there is a chapter on activism (HACKTIVISM) and on Ricardo Dominguez's virtual demonstration, which sparked numerous reactions in media circles in the United States by asking the Mexican and American presidents to debate in public.7 When they rebelled in 1994, the small army of Zapatistas disagreed with the Mexican Army in Chiapas. Their spokesman, Marcos, used his laptop computer as an effective weapon. By mobilizing international pressure through the use of university networks, churches and non-governmental organizations, the Zapatistas managed to end the government's assaults. They used the multiplication of hacktivists to block the government's computer network. (Hacktivism is the title of a book published by the Electronic Disturbance Theater, whose members include Ricardo Dominguez.) The aim wasn't to hack into sites, but to weaken those that effectively blocked steps towards peace. For the Zapatistas, this meant international support that saved them from total subjugation to the Mexican state apparatus (a situation that is completely different from Palestine today).


F.M.: You haven't shown any pieces for some time now. What artistic projects are you currently working on?


J.G.: Each of my projects has required a fairly significant amount of time to produce due to the nature of the project. It's very easy to quickly add something in a landscape that is already fairly cluttered, whereas questioning embodies more time. As such the videolibrary—put together with co-curator Herman Asselberghs—is sort of a toolbox to explore and elaborate new itineraries and themes. A recently installed version at the Museum of Art in Santa Monica incorporated the recent events of 9/11 and the subsequent manipulation of mainstream media to basically sell a war. For example some inclusions in the library juxtaposed the filmed Afghanistan war diaries of Russian director Alexander Sokurov versus Rambo III, where Sylvester Stallone fights alongside the mujaheddin.8

My time is now taken up with the next project, actually a feature-length. A work about the ending of films or how television changed the idea of the (happy) ending, and it inherently deals with television commercials. When we live in a time where people do not purchase products but rather buy an experience of the accompanying ad, or where gestures of love are portrayed as brand names, how can you possibly tell a love story? How do you tell a love story in a world that packages our most intimate feelings and desires for profit, a world where emotional content becomes mere product placement? Everything has become an imitation of something else and advertising starts looking better than the "real thing". When you say "I love you", everyone has heard that line before—but only with better lighting. In this context, the challenge of portraying a love story would be one of navigating the fragile borders of the private and the emotional as they are transformed by the media. We know all about those "happy ends"—and they had lots of kids and lived happily ever after—but what is so happy about that? The glossy commercial blurs our actual lives into the promise of fantasy and we begin to mistake reality for a commercial break. Trapped in this "ad", are we doomed to rewind our "happy ends" forever or what?




Adapted from: Montagnon, F., "Reality Mistaken for a Commercial Break", in Hardcore, vers un nouvel activisme, ed. J. Sans (Paris: Palais de Tokyo/Éditions Cercles d'Art, 2003), 110–17.